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PERRY MASON: NOIR PIONEER IN LEGAL THRILLERS by Manning Wolfe

Perry Mason was introduced as a hard-hitting lawyer in the popular mystery novels penned by Erle Stanley Gardner, starting with The Case Of The Velvet Claws. From the 1930s through the 1970s, Gardner's Perry Mason series, comprising over eighty novels, introduced readers to the tenacious defense attorney. The series' success can be attributed, in part, to Gardner's deft infusion of noir elements within the legal thriller framework.


When the television adaptation of Perry Mason hit the screens in the late 1950s, it took Gardner's noir-infused legal thrillers and brought them to life. At its core, the show followed Raymond Burr's portrayal of the character as he meticulously untangled complex murder cases. The Perry Mason show stood out as the epitome of legal drama with a dark twist.


The visual allure of Perry Mason rested in its black-and-white cinematography that heightened the contrast between light and shadow, thus emphasizing the moral obscurity that permeated each case. From dimly lit offices to dimly lit courtrooms, the show's visuals embodied the moodiness and tension that characterized noir storytelling. This visual artistry foreshadowed the role that lighting and camera techniques would play in modern legal thrillers, where atmosphere often becomes a character in itself.


The iconic series not only captivated audiences with its intricate courtroom battles but also wove in noir elements that would go on to influence legal thrillers for decades to come. With its morally complex characters, shadowy atmosphere, and intricate plotting, Perry Mason laid the foundation for the evolution of legal thrillers, shaping the genre into what we see on screens today.



Central to the essence of noir is its exploration of moral ambiguity, a theme that Perry Mason embraced wholeheartedly. While the eponymous character championed justice, his methods often veered into ethically murky territories. This gray area of morality was not confined to Mason alone; supporting characters like Della Street and Paul Drake were not immune to moral dilemmas. Often, their lives’ ethical challenges were mirrored in the complexity of the cases they tackled.


The legacy of Perry Mason's intricate plotting also remains evident in contemporary television legal thrillers like "Breaking Bad", "Better Call Saul", "The Good Wife" and "How to Get Away with Murder." Shows like "Suits" and "The Defenders" also inherit Perry Mason's legacy of multifaceted protagonists straddling the line between right and wrong. These shows masterfully incorporate unexpected turns and twists, ensuring that viewers remain riveted throughout the unfolding story.


In modern day legal thriller novels, Perry Mason’s influences can also be traced. In “The Firm”, John Grisham’s storytelling style, which blends legal intricacies with a thrilling narrative, owes a debt to the Perry Mason style. In Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” Rusty Sabich tirelessly defends his innocence while delving into moral ambiguity, a hallmark of the Perry Mason legacy. Michael Connelly, in “The Lincoln Lawyer” creates a morally gray world where Mickey Haller navigates the fine line between right and wrong, a clear Perry Mason tradition.


In all of these examples, it’s clear to see that Perry Mason's fusion of noir aesthetics and legal drama blazed a trail for countless legal thrillers that came behind. Its morally complex characters, shadowy atmospheres, and intricate narratives have become foundational elements of the genre. The novels and television shows not only entertained audiences but also challenged them to navigate the ambiguous realms of morality and the intricacies of justice, just as their contemporary counterparts do today.



MANNING WOLFE, an award-winning author and attorney, writes cinematic-style, smart, fast-paced thrillers and crime fiction. Manning was recently featured on Oxygen TV’s: Accident, Suicide, or Murder, and has spoken at major book festivals around the world.

* Manning’s legal thriller series features Austin attorney Merit Bridges, including Dollar Signs, Music Notes, Green Fees, and Chinese Wall.

* Manning’s new Proxy Legal Thrillers Series features Houston attorney Quinton Bell, including Dead By Proxy, Hunted By Proxy, and Alive By Proxy.

* Manning is co-author of Killer Set: Drop the Mic, and twelve additional Bullet Books Speed Reads.

As a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, Manning’s experience has given her a voyeur’s peek into some shady characters’ lives and a front-row seat to watch the good people who stand against them.



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